I love BRCK Expeditions! I love the intensity, the camaraderie, and – above all – I love the adventure. You never know what is going to happen on a BRCK Expedition and that is what makes them so great.
It’s been a couple years since my last BRCK Expedition which was our overland journey to South Africa. As a company we’ve spent this time being heads down working on building a business model for giving away Internet access for free. It’s a platform we call Moja (which means one in Kiswahili). Built on the foundation of our amazing new SupaBRCK, this Infrastructure platform brings connectivity to the most remote places and provides an economic model for users who otherwise couldn’t afford connectivity access to the full internet – and a bunch of great content as well.
The Pemba crew heading along the Tanzanian border
For Expedition Pemba we decided to travel from Nairobi to the northern island of Zanzibar to deploy some Mojas and do some IoT testing. Our Director of Operations, Reid, spent many years on Pemba and he knows the people and community well. This expedition will involve our usual collection of vehicles and a lengthy dhow ride (a Swahili boat) to the island. It’s only a 10 day trip and we were all feeling it might be just a little too “easy”. Early in the planning stage, Erik received a call from a TV producer named Craig Martin. Craig and his co-host Earl Bridges both grew up in Thailand and now they travel the world capturing the stories of people endeavoring to do good in the world for their program called Good All Over (goodallover.tv). We all watched the trailer and thought that it would be fun to have a couple of TCK’s (third-culture kids like some of us) join us with their cameras. We put out the call to the BRCK team for volunteers and quickly had a crew of 10 ready for adventure. When we were about 2 months out from the trip, Craig casually mentioned that they were bringing an entire film crew with them who would need to join us at every step along the way. We went from 10 to 18 people overnight. Our Pemba Expedition suddenly was no longer going to be easy.
The hosts of Good All Over with Reid and Philip
This is my fourth expedition and I have ridden a different motorcycle each time. This year I am on my KTM Adventure 990. A revered adventure bike with off-road credibility. While the bike is extremely capable, it is also very heavy. Everything was going well on our first day of riding along the Tanzanian border heading towards the ranger station where we were going to setup a Moja unit. As we headed into the Chuylu Hills for the last 30km, the rain we had been nervously watching on the horizon started to fall on us. Fortunately the direct rain was light but the effects on the road ahead were considerable. As we pushed our way through the volcanic soil and rocks the track grew more and more slick. I laid the big bike down in a pocket of volcanic dust and fortunately jumped off before it hit the ground. Erik helped me right it and we headed off again. Not 1km further down the road, the rut that I was riding in pushed me into a mound of dirt. The heavy bike fell sideways against my leg and Erik, once again, gave the bike a tug to straighten it and we continued. About 3km before our camp the road had become quite slippery. Coming out of a corner my back end came around and I – by pure blind luck – spun the bike 180 degrees without going down. Erik applauded the pirouette and as we pulled into camp Erik commented that the afternoon ride was like watching a man wrestle a buffalo. This expedition is going to be a bit of a buffalo wrestle for the BRCK team. Having 8 extra people who aren’t used to Africa, don’t understand our corporate culture, and who have their own priorities that don’t necessarily align with our own, will make this a truly unique trip. It will be great to share our beautiful home and to expose these professionals to the chaos of Africa. Even in the first day it is obvious that this is going to be an eye opening trip for for the Good All Over team.
Philip wrestling his motorcycle in the mud
The late afternoon rain in the Chuylu also brought us an exceptional rainbow. The light cast as the sun set was as stunning as I’ve ever seen. Everything bathed in the light took on a glow of special significance. Even the Maasai cattle – who generally look somewhat scruffy and pathetic – were picture perfect for a Swiss dairy poster. We were all chomping at the bit to stop and take pictures but the sun was setting, the ground was wet, and we still needed to setup camp. Plus, the film crew does not exactly stop and take pictures quickly. Chasing the rainbow of having a dry camp on our first night, with storm clouds and water columns all around us, seemed an impossible wish. With every turn we would align with another distant downpour and keep pushing. As with our first night in Malawi on Expedition South Africa, at the very last minute we turned into the last spot of clear sky. We arrived at camp as the last rays faded and by 9pm the tents were pitched, our bellies were full with Rinnie’s Famous Chili (a BRCK tradition), and we called it a night in our dry camp. Once again we had achieved the impossible in spite of the challenges around us. Moja is one of those ideas that is going to require the same level of good fortune and indeterminate persistance. The idea of giving internet away for free to customers that can’t afford to pay and still make a profitable business is another rainbow that is worth chasing.
The rainbow that led us to camp on the first night
Expedition Pemba is just starting to unfold keep up with us on our journey at #BRCKExpedition and the Good All Over team at #GoodAllOverTakesKenya
TED Global was held in Arusha Tanzania recently. BRCK had the privilege of running 2 UX workshops there, which was an exciting opportunity to interact with some of the greatest minds in the world. This is arguably the most inspiring group of thinkers and doers that gather in one place for the sole purpose of sharing, inspiring and learning from each other.
We were no different. We went in ready share, learn and be inspired by these great minds.
As a user experience designer, I relished the opportunity to engage these minds in trying to figure out one of the quintessential challenges of our times; youth unemployment.
How can we use access to the internet to help young people find jobs, in a context of a poor/expensive connectivity infrastructure and limited formal exposure?
HERE ARE SOME SOBERING NUMBERS
There is over 3 billion people in the world who cannot afford adequate access to the internet. 800 million of these people are in Africa. If you zoom in closer home, Kenya has a population of approximately 45 million people. Of these, only 10 million can afford the internet. That leaves 35 million people without adequate access to the internet! This excludes them from massive opportunities across the spectrum of what we nonchalantly enjoy with our suburban connectivity.
BRCK’s mission is to connect African people to the internet. We do this by providing free access to the internet for the masses via our connectivity infrastracture. This is powered by our ruggedized micro server network of SupaBRCKs. For more on this game changing device, check out brck.com.
HOW DO PEOPLE ACCESS AND ENJOY BRCK CONNECTIVITY?
The model is simple; When a user is within range of a BRCK WiFi signal, they log onto the network and they land onto a captive Moja portal. This is populated with captivating content that includes music, movies, books and more. They are also able to go online and browse freely or jump onto their social media networks. The only requirement is that they watch a 5-15 sec ad every once in a while. This is a pretty good deal, especially considering most will not spend more than 20 Kshs (about 2 USD cents) per day on the internet. This service is called Moja, Swahili for one.
The response to Moja from users has been overwhelmingly positive. We typically have users between the age of 18-24 as our core audience. One of the places we installed a Moja is a youth hangout and betting lounge where they bet on football matches. The owner occasionally has to turn off the service to the over 70 strong audience crammed into the space so that they can get off and bet first.
WHY THE EMPLOYMENT CHALLENGE?
One of our tenets as a company is centering our users and being as responsive as we can to their needs. While our users enjoy all the trappings of BRCK connectivity, our user experience research consistently yields one overlying content request. Jobs. Young people want access to jobs.
The interesting thing is that we have different services online that seek to link Job seekers and vacancies. A case in point is during the workshop, the founder of Duma Works was there decrying lack of candidates for 300 jobs they are trying to recruit for. So what is the disconnect? This must be easy! Right? Not so fast.
The challenge placed before these great minds was to help us think through how we can leverage the power of the internet that BRCK is making available to these young guys to help them find jobs. It was a healthy cross section of people from different contexts, expertise and worldviews.
A lot of good ideas came through, some more novel than others from aggregating job platforms to creating a tinder experience for jobs. We are all back in Nairobi now ready to get our hands dirty away from the spotlight and really give these ideas a true human centered go. Who knows, maybe we’ll iterate into an idea worth spreading while we give unemployment a permanent black eye.
Lion Guardians is a conservation organization that promotes cultural sustainability and coexistence between lions and people across Kenya and Tanzania. Their main camp, Naharbala Camp, is located right in the middle of Amboseli and isolated from the comfortable amenities that you find in urban areas.
Our four-hour trip from Nairobi led us to a camp that relies on Solar power to generate electricity for the camp’s infrastructure operations. Amboseli, a landscape of wonder filled with a dry and sprawling grassland, scattered trees and diverse wildlife. This was our destination on Valentine’s day this year, a team of three BRCK employees consisting of Robert our driver, Jimmy, an electrical engineer and me. Foregoing the day of love to solve a long-term connectivity issue, we set out early that Tuesday morning.
Upon arrival we were welcomed by Dr. Leela Hazzah, the organization’s Executive Director, she explained to us the issue that had been plaguing them: for the past one year, the camp has experienced poor internet connectivity and has been on a satellite backhaul that has proved to be inefficient in terms of slow speeds and intermittent connectivity. Internet is an important tool for Lion Guardians in regards to communicating with international partners and performing research work. The existing internet connectivity setup included a satellite antenna, a modem, WiFi extender (Ubiquiti UniFi AP Outdoor) and solar charged batteries that powered the whole camp apart from the equipment.
With the advent of 3G network in Kenya ten years ago, majority of areas in Kenya including rural towns and remote areas have access to fast mobile internet speeds. The Naharbala camp has four Safaricom cell towers surrounding it and include: Kinama, Imbirkana, Lengsime and Amboseli Serena. The availability of adequate mobile network infrastructure provided BRCK an opportunity to test out the BRCK at the camp. We installed the BRCK device with a GSM antenna and tested which cell tower to point to. The cell tower at Kinama provided the best Safaricom reception signal. In addition to this simple setup, we connected the existing WiFi extender to provide wide coverage across the camp.
With the setup in place, Dr. Leela and the rest of the camp were able to access 7Mbps internet and even make a Skype call, something we urbanites take for granted. The installation was a success and the BRCK team of three departed in the late afternoon satisfied with a well done job.
However, two weeks later, the internet connectivity stopped operating and this prompted two more trips to Naharbala camp to identify the issue. We suspected that the issue was the mobile network signal and frequency. So we installed a GSM/3G signal booster but even this did not solve the problem. We came to a conclusion that the towers were transmitting on EDGE frequency (900MHz) and this would fluctuate to 3G (1200MHz) after a while and internet connectivity would resume. To our relief, Dr. Leela informed us that another conservation camp (focusing on Baboons) within Amboseli was experiencing the same problem and that Safaricom engineers were scheduled to do repairs and maintenance at the Kinama cell tower.
At the time of publishing this blog, the internet connectivity remained intermittent due to the mobile network signal issue. BRCK’s goal is to connect Africa but it’s also important for the backhaul infrastructure such as mobile or satellite to be stable and efficient.
Being my first time to travel to Samburu, I found it quite exciting getting ready for the trip. We left for Kiltamani Primary School with a fellowship of five: Robert, Eduardo, Sheila, Duncan and I. The Kalama Conservancy is about 400 kilometers away from Nairobi therefore the long journey was expected.
Our windows are rolled all the way down. The breeze loosens my hijab and kisses my hair. We are listening to Tracy Chapman with the volume turned up. Every line is a message written just for us and we hum to the tune of the beat. The car sighs,it’s engine tickling with relief. We’ll have sunburn then fevers. We can’t wait to get to Kiltamany.
At Nanyuki, on our way to Kiltamany
We arrive at the school quite late, but not late enough to set up camp. Edoardo helps Loussa and I with setting up our tents, cool house music plays in the background. As Duncan is telling stories I kick my shoes off and unfold my legs in the bare sand. I see a scorpion and put my shoes back on.
Where the scorpions are
The next day half the team set off to Korr for a day’s refresher training while we trained the new teachers at Kiltamany on how to use the Kio Kit. It was and still is a learning experience.
Lousa teaching the head teacher how to use the Broadcast feature.
After a day’s hard work we gather and tell stories and laugh. Our laughter did not build softly but exploded, filling the smoky air and spilling it out into the dark.
The next morning as we prepare to go home, I can’t help but feel honored to be part of this great experience: to enhance our education system for the better.
The car fills with wind, so pushy and loud my hair whips against my neck and I can’t hear the music anymore. I turn and look at Lousa and she is fast asleep. Edoardo is singing, Robert’s eyes glued to the road and Duncan trying to read a book.
The Aegis Graham Bell awards was established by the Aegis school of Telecom Data and Science as a tribute to the late father of Telephony, Sir Alexander Graham Bell.
The award’s mission is to recognize outstanding innovations and entrepreneurship in the fields of Telecom, Social, Mobility, Analytics, Cloud, and Security.
This year’s awards ceremony was held on Thursday 9th February 2017 at the NDMC convention centre in New Delhi.
While the rest of the winners were countries with operations in India, BRCK is the only company outside of India that won an award. BRCK’s education solution, the Kio Kit, won the top honours in the mEducation category.
Alex Masika, BRCK Biz Dev Manager, receiving the award
BRCK’s game-changing products and solutions continue to receive international acclaim for use of technologies that are literally revitalizing businesses and communities around the world.
The year has started on quite a high note here at Brck. Our vision still driving us forward; to connect Africa to the internet. That’s exactly what we were doing on Tuesday the 10th of January. Duncan Mochama, Madhav Gajjar, Robert Karume and I were deploying a Kio Kit to one of the most rural parts of Kenya, Ungatani Primary School in the heart of Makindu in Makueni county.
The whole trip was going to be quite a journey (approximately more than 130 km from Nairobi) we therefore had to leave early to reach and arrive back on time. By nine am we’d hit the road and were on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway.
We arrived at the local market, Kathonzweni Market in Kathonzweni, at around 12:30 pm, to pick the headteacher, Mr Pascal Kieti, to lead us, as the road to the school would be quite tricky for first-time visitors to navigate through. It was also to be a 20 km journey from the said market to the school.
After a much bumpy all-weather-road drive, we finally arrived at the school. It is a beautiful school enveloped in trees and bushes in a quiet and serene environment perfect for learning. The school has children of all levels, from class one to eight. We immediately set to start the training; to the seven teachers first (four had left for a Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development training), then an introduction of the Kio Kit to the kids afterwards.
The training is usually an enjoyable and interesting session. The teachers listened intently throughout the process and were eager to learn and experiment on all the available content and tech techniques as applied on the Kit. They were especially intrigued by the broadcast feature, which basically helps the teacher broadcast whatever they are seeing on their tablet, to the children at the same time. Once they felt confident enough, we got one of them to teach a class while using the Kio Kit.
The Children were just beautiful, expectant and ready as always. We got them introduced to the Kio Kit, what it is, how it functions and what it is supposed to help them achieve.
Afterwards, the teacher gave them a class on the breathing system from eKitabu content on the Kit. The lesson flowed smoothly and was a success not only on the part of the teacher, but also for us as Brck.
It was a learning experience to know where and how to work on the Kio Kit to make it better and simpler with time. It’s always a worth while trip once you see the smiles on the children’s faces and receive endless amounts of gratitude from the teachers and kids. Once again a generation has been touched.
We board flight UNO 405H at 0730 hrs from Wilson Airport and 1hr 45 mins later, we are at Kakuma Town in Turkana County. Have you ever seen photos of Turkana people? Most of the photos show a bunch of men and women, boys and girls, young and old Turkana people with short, thick and kinky hair smelling of sun. Do you know how the sun smells? Neither do I. They are usually in their best clothes which are ironically their everyday clothes.
This is not the case in Kakuma Refugee Camp. The Kakuma refugee camp is in Kakuma Town and is buzzing with activity. The camp was established in 1992 to accommodate refugees from Sudan but was later expanded to accommodate refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. According to the latest UNHCR statistics, the Kakuma Refugee camp hosts more than 100,000 refugees.
Janet and I are here to deploy the Kio Kit at the Amani Boys’ Centre, a boys’ rescue centre which is run by Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS). The temperatures are high. Francis, our contact in Kakuma hands us a bottle of water when we arrive and advises us to stay hydrated.
The camps where we will be spending the next two days is a fenced and secure area with nice concrete rooms and a kitchen. Soon after breakfast we leave for the Jesuit ICT centre where refugees are enrolled for ICT classes. It is an organised institution with two computer labs each with close to 20 computers. This is where we are going to train Paul, the systems administrator at the centre, and his team of 5 including Greg St. Arnold, the Regional Education Coordinator Eastern/Southern Africa.
On day two and we drive to Amani Boys’ Centre, which is 10Kms from Kakuma Town, for training. Janet introduces the Kio Kit to the boys who are between the ages of 6 years and 19. Having grown up in harsh conditions both from their home country and in the refugee camp, 70% of the boys in the centre had not interacted with a smartphone or a tablet before.
They were curious to learn and interact with the Kio Tablets which made the training easy and enjoyable and in less than an hour, the boys had learnt how to navigate on the Kio Tablet. The trainer- Felix Otieno- starts training the boys with the choice of content like Mr. Nussbaum Games.
The best thing about the sessions for the boys was that they thought they were just playing, not learning. Yet over the few days we were with them, we noticed how much more confident they became in class and also with using the device.
2016 proved to be a busy year at BRCK, after we announced our funding round. We started off by getting into our new office, upgrading from the small room we’d used for the previous two years.
There was a blur of events, with some of us speaking at WEF, TED, ITU, and many others. A number of visitors came through, the biggest being Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
We had the good fortune to win a number of awards by the year’s close as well:
- Fast Company’s 2016 Innovation by Design Awards
- Sustainia Top 100 2016
- AfricaCom: Best Pan-African Initiative 2016
- ITU: Global SME Award 2016
- African Entrepreneurship Award 2016 Finalist
The real work we do is focused on what our customers need, and we figure that out in two ways. First, we spend a lot of time with them. Second, is we do quite a bit of internal testing, as can be seen from the expedition to Mt. Kenya, testing out some new sensor connectivity products.
Some of this work is done just because it’s good to do, as Juliana and Rufus continued to support the Africa Cancer Foundation work, going all over the country to bring connectivity in their efforts to help with cancer screening.
We get very close and spend a lot of time with the people using our products. The Kio Kit, our education solution has been doing well, but we always strive to make it better. Mark, Alex and Nivi lead much of this work as they visited schools, spending time with teachers and students from Malawi to Tanzania, as well as here in Kenya with our trip to Samburu, spending 7 days with Kiltamany Primary School and working with one of our partners, Liquid Telecom to speed up their overall network (see video below).
Liquid Telecom delivers internet to pupils at remote Kenya primary school from Liquid Telecom Group on Vimeo.
Other partnerships have continued to grow. Intel has become a great partner, where we work with both their chip and education teams on multiple products and projects. The same applies to our local partners in Upande, who we’ve teamed up to do quite a bit of intense water sensor work in a county in Kenya. New partners this year include; Swissport, Illuminum Greenhouses, Norwegian Refugee Council, Close the Gap International, BookAid, and Paygo Energy.
Stuff we make
Kio Kit now in 11 countries
We started shipping the Kio Kit in the beginning of the year. After getting the kits out to a few customers in some pretty hard to reach areas, we realized we needed to harden the case to manage the rough transport that is required to get it to its destination. The hardware and software teams continued to improve both, culminating in what we feel is the best holistic education solution on the market.
Kio Kit to be used to scale up a rapid response to educational needs in emergencies. In partnership with the Norwegian Refugee Council, youth and out of school children in Dadaab refugee camp will use the Kio Kit to improve their literacy and reading skills in English and Somali.
Our customers agree. Not only have they been back for repeat orders, but we’ve shipped Kio Kits to 11 countries around the world – stretching from the Solomon Islands to Mexico, and of course here in East and Southern Africa.
BRCK v1 goes end of life
As we get ready for the next generation of BRCK hardware, we decided to stop orders on the old BRCK hardware. Since the end of 2015 the team has been pushing hard on the next generation core device, using all of the lessons we’ve learned from both the original BRCK and the Kio Kit. The new BRCK will be an enterprise-grade device, more details in the new year.
R&D – continuing the innovation cycle
It turns out that there are a number of companies across Africa who badly need an IoT solution that works in our environment. Something reliable and inexpensive that can connect information from their valuable equipment and assets to the people who make decisions.
The original BRCK box states, “connectivity for people and things”, and what we found out is that the BRCK v1 might technically be able to do some IoT work, but it wasn’t the right device for it. 2016 has seen us go through the early stages of our new PicoBRCK device, an answer to the rugged IoT needs across Africa’s enterprises. While still in development, we expect a final product in 2017.
2017: The Year Ahead
Expect two new products this year from BRCK, as mentioned above. A lot of the hard work put in by the hardware, software, and design teams in 2016 will bear fruit this year as we get to final productization and are able to scale out for customer orders. Much of the effort from the BRCK team will be spent on finalizing and shipping these products, while also supporting and growing the base for Kio Kit.
On the business side of the house, we’re ramping up our supply chain to manage the increasing demand for all products. We’ll continue to extend beyond Kenya into other interesting markets, which always includes East African countries, and many Southern African ones as well. We also have a few surprises up our sleeves which we can’t talk about in public quite yet. 🙂
A huge thank you to our partners who we’re doing so much work with, and of course our families who are such a great support in the ups-and-downs of a young company’s life. A big thanks to our friends at Ushahidi, the iHub, Gearbox and Akirachix who make life in the Nairobi tech ecosystem such a wonderful experience. My biggest thank you goes out to the BRCK team, the ones who you don’t see on stage and who sometimes clock crazy hours to solve problems, run spreadsheets, create new designs, think up new ideas, and who code, solder and respond to our customers day in and day out.